- Rabbi Leder
- Yom Kippur
Kol Nidrei Sermon 5784
Rabbi Steve Leder
Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Los Angeles
About the Inner World of the Soul
When I stand here and look out at you I see so many invisible things; so much success and pride, failure and pain within our souls. Over so many years I have felt your joy--the chuppah, your children and grandchildren thriving, the triumphs of your human spirit. We have danced and laughed and gone fishing together. And we have walked through the Valley of Shadows together; through your marriage that died, the turning of the spade and the thunk of the earth upon a casket; a child, parent, husband, wife, grandparent, and friends who are physically no more, but whose absence is so very present, especially on nights like tonight.
I see the scars from the surgeries you have endured. I feel some measure of the anxiety you carry. And I have been honest with you about my own joys and wins, my own demons and disappointments, my scars, my sometimes-broken heart and body. Not only to be seen by you, but to assure you that when I look out at you, I really do see you and I really do understand, because I laugh and I hurt too sometimes.
I remember the precise moment I learned to feel for someone I did not know. I was in fifth grade and loved playing on my basketball team. I was short but I could run and shoot. One game I was under that basket in a crowd of taller kids trying to rebound my own missed shot. Next to me was a taller ten-year-old opponent who was going for the ball too. When he and I were both on our way up to grab the rebound, I decided to elbow him hard, in the ribs, knowing the ref couldn’t see me. I had never played dirty before, but somehow thought it was ok to try.
I will never forget the grimace of pain on that boy’s face after I hit him. Holding his side, fighting back tears, he gasped for air and walked slowly away from me. In that moment, that boy became a real person to me; a boy holding back tears and in pain; a boy just like me. It was the last elbow I ever threw in my life.
“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger: You were strangers in the land of Egypt,” (Ex. 23:9) the Torah tells us. How is it possible to know the heart of a stranger; they are a stranger? But are they really any different than we? There is a very simple way to know and understand the heart of another: If we can pause for a moment, just a moment without judgement, we really can know the heart of another, because their heart is as wounded and full and complicated as ours.
Tonight, God is not judging us for our human mistakes and shortcomings. “For sins between people and God, Yom Kippur atones,” the prayer book reminds us. In fact, within the first few pages of our service the sages quote God saying, “Salachti ki’d’varecha.” “You said you are sorry. I forgive you.” As far as the rabbis were concerned, we are already done with God’s forgiveness tonight.
The al cheits are almost all horizontal, the things we do not to God but to each other, the things that fracture our families, friendships and world--harsh words, lying, cheating, gossiping, deceiving, bullying, breaking hearts and promises. And so many of them never would have happened in the first place if we could see ourselves, our feelings, our flesh, our hurt, our soul, our yearnings are no different than those of the person we have hurt or who has hurt us. If you prick us, we all bleed, but so many times, we pretend otherwise as we pierce the skin of others in sharp and painful ways.
R’ Moshe Leib used to tell his Chassidim that he learned what it means to love a fellow Jew from two Russian peasants. Once he came to an inn, where two thoroughly drunk Russian peasants were sitting at a table, draining the last drops from a bottle of strong Ukrainian vodka.
One of them, in a slurred drunken drawl yelled to his friend, “Igor! Do you love me?” Igor, somewhat surprised by the question answered, “Of course Ivan, of course I love you!”
“No no,” insisted Ivan, “do you really love me, really?”
Igor, now feeling a bit cornered, assured him, “What do you think? I don’t love you? Of course, I love you. You’re my best friend Ivan!”
“Oh yes?” countered Ivan. “If you really loved me … then why don’t you know what hurts me and the pain I have in my heart?”
There is no precise Hebrew word for empathy. Most Israelis simply say, “empatia.” But the Torah describes it perfectly when it commands us to “cut away the thickening of our heart.” If we cannot remove the thick wall of othering from around our own hearts we cannot feel for others; we will live existentially alone in the most painful, dark way. This is why it is so often true that when people feel the world has turned its back on them, it is more likely they have turned their back on the world.
But it need not be so. The Talmud puts it this way:
הָיָה רַבִּי מֵאִיר אוֹמֵר: גְּדוֹלָה תְּשׁוּבָה, שֶׁבִּשְׁבִיל יָחִיד שֶׁעָשָׂה תְּשׁוּבָה — מוֹחֲלִין לְכׇל” הָעוֹלָם כּוּלּוֹ
Rabbi Meir would say: Great is repentance because the entire world is forgiven on account of one individual who repents,
שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״אֶרְפָּא מְשׁוּבָתָם אוֹהֲבֵם נְדָבָה כִּי שָׁב אַפִּי מִמֶּנּוּ״.
as it is stated: ‘I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely; for My anger has turned away from him’ (Hosea 14:5).
״מֵהֶם״ לֹא נֶאֱמַר, אֶלָּא ״מִמֶּנּוּ״.
It does not say: From them, i.e., from the sinners, but ‘from him,’ i.e., from that individual. Because he repented, everyone will be healed.”
In other words, when you recognize the humanity in the other whom you have harmed, when you see him in pain, when you see her in pain, when you cut away the thickening of your heart by imagining that pain as your own, that you and that other person are one; that is when you are closest to God, that is when the healing begins and travels far into the world.
When you have come to me to sit on what, as so many of you know, I call my couch of tears, and you confess some painful, embarrassing, foolish sin…before I respond I ask myself where that same sin is in me. Where is that narcissism, that coveting, that deception, that pettiness, that pain, in me? Before you judge another, ask yourself, are you so perfect? Have you never slammed a door in anger? Have you never wounded with words? Are you without pettiness or selfishness, immorality or contempt? Ask yourself these questions and tell the truth; that is the way to remove the thickening around your heart.
We’re all essentially good people or we would not even be here tonight. But rarely a day, rarely a minute goes by when we don’t have to decide who we really are. This year, will we be more kind? Will we remember Torah more often—that sacred book that is our moral imperative to care about others? Will we care about the stranger because we were strangers so often and for so long? Will we be kind to the widow and the orphan, the ill and the elderly, the poor and the lost? Because we sometimes feel powerless, because we feel pain, because we want to matter, can we find the empathy to feel and to know that others we are tempted to objectify hurt like we hurt, and matter as we matter?
That stranger sleeping in a tent tonight, care more about him. Care more about her. That person whose politics you despise, who you are so certain is so wrong, care more about her, care more about him. That person sitting next to you tonight is in pain; a pain as deep as your own. No matter how much you already care, care more about him. Care more about her.
The Midrash reminds us “A baby enters the world with hands clenched, as if to say ‘The world is mine; I shall grab it.’ A person leaves with hands open, as if to say, ‘I can take nothing with me.'” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah)
That we take nothing with us means one of two things. Either nothing and no one ultimately matters in life, or everything and everyone matters. I know exactly what the rabbis would tell us about that, because Judaism at its core is a battle against fatalism; a denial of entrapment in yesterday’s ways.
We don’t have to throw elbows and cast shadows. We can apologize, we can change, we can heal, we can forgive, we can see and treat others as we ourselves want to be seen and treated; we can consider, and know, and realize the pain of others is much like our pain; we really can cut away the thickening of our hearts.
According to a 10th century rabbinic work, all of Judaism, all of life, comes down to a simple request. “My children, what do I seek from you? I seek no more than that you love and honor one another.” (Tanna d’Vai Eliyahu)
This year, strangely and movingly, my father’s secular yahrzeit was on Erev Rosh Hashanah and his Hebrew Yahrzeit is today. My memory of him, and his ever-present soul are the bookends to these days of awe; a reminder none of us has forever.
That life ends, that we leave with nothing, means life and love matter more each day and each year, not less. Every moment we can feel the pain of another as if it was our own, every hurt we can repair, every “I am sorry,” matters so much.
This is my final Kol Nidrei sermon as your Senior Rabbi. After all of my study; all that I have gleaned from the sages of Torah, Talmud and so many of you over 37 years on my couch of tears, I have chosen this to share with you above all else. There is no greater truth, no greater task, no greater blessing than to cut away the thickening of our hearts. To make God’s greatest truth and most sacred blessing ours in the year to come and always. We have the power to do that; to really feel for each other, to truly love and honor each other. This is my deepest hope and my most loving prayer for you…